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The watchmaker and the secret sandalwood island

When Thomas Blakesley arrived in Hobart in 1827, he was one of the few non-convict watchmakers to set up in business in Van Diemen’s Land.

The adventurous Mr Blakesley, who seems to have had a number of useful skills including ship navigation, is one of the more intriguing characters of the early Hobart business community.

He and his wife Elizabeth arrived in Hobart in February 1827 from London on the ship Admiral Cockburn.

Thomas Blakesley, who was 43 years old, advertised in the Hobart Town Gazette of 24 March 1827 that he was a carpenter, builder, plumber, glazier and painter from London and had commenced business at premises in Murray Street (near Liverpool Street).

He added at the bottom of his advertisement that he could clean and repair watches and jewellery and clean, repair and adjust sextants and quadrants.

In August 1827 he had moved to Elizabeth Street and his wife was selling millinery but by 1828 he advertised that he would not be responsible for any debts incurred in his name without his permission.

He then left the colony for New South Wales and in October 1828 he advertised that he had commenced business as a chronometer maker and watchmaker at 104 Pitt Street, Sydney.

His wife Elizabeth remained in Hobart and continued running her millinery business.

This is where the story gets interesting. Advertising for Thomas Blakesley’s chronometer and watchmaking business in Sydney stopped and his name then crops up in accounts of a secret sandalwood expedition to the island of Erromango in the Vanuatu archipelago.

He had apparently joined the crew of the brig Sophia under the command of a Captain Henry.

The sap of the sandalwood tree is an essential oil then said to only be found in the tropics of the Pacific Ocean. Used for centuries in incense candles, foods and medicines it was incredibly valuable.

Today a kilogram of sandalwood oil sells for between $1,500 and $2,500. The island of Erromango was reportedly covered in sandalwood trees, from its hilltops to the coast.

The connection between Thomas Blakesley, watchmaker, and the search for the fabled sandalwood island is told in a paper entitled Boki: The Challenges Of A Ruling Chief by Dr M. “Puakea” Nogelmeier, a Professor Emeritus of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaii.

Dr Nogelmeier cites an item in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser of Friday 17 October 1828 that said Captain Henry just had “a very successful voyage, having collected among the [Pacific] islands, a valuable cargo. Amongst other articles he has a ton of tortoise shell, which is worth between two and three thousand pounds.”

There was no mention of sandalwood being in this cargo but Dr Nogelmeier says Captain Henry obviously knew where to find the valuable timber because when he mounted a sandalwood collecting voyage in the Sophia in 1829, he lied to traders and port authorities about his destination and the source of his cargo.

In fact, he kept secret the exact location of the sandalwood island, even from those on-board his ship, but two of his 1829 passengers, a watchmaker named Thomas Blakesley and a silversmith named Cox, made a sextant and measured the exact location.

Dr Nogelmeier says that when the Sophia stopped in Honolulu, Blakesley sold the information to interested traders, including the Hawaiian chief Boki and his business partner.

“Thomas Blakesley, who promised that he could find the islands, was contracted to sail there. He was to be paid $4,500 if the trip were successful and nothing if the project should fail.

“The contract called for claiming the island and putting it under Hawaiian protection and sailing with the sandalwood to Canton.”

The contract was signed by Chief Boki and Thomas Blakesley. It was going to be a long voyage from Hawaii to Vanuatu, more than 3,000 nautical miles, and then on to China.

Two ships set off for the sandalwood island but only one reached its destination. The vessel commanded by Thomas Blakesley and carrying the Chief Boki disappeared, probably somewhere near the Fijian island of Rotuma. No survivors were found.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Blakesley continued to run her millinery business at several addresses in Elizabeth Street, Hobart, before advertising in 1833 that she had moved to a shop in New Town Road. She was 90 years old when she died in Hobart in July 1873.

This is one of more than 100 convict clock and watchmakers profiled in my book DOING TIME, Stories of Convict Clock and Watchmakers in Van Diemen's Land published in 2023. It’s available for $30 from most Tasmanian bookshops.

Images -- TOP: Hobart Town c1820 by an unknown artist (from the collection of QVMAG, Launceston). MIDDLE: T. Blakesley advertisement in the Hobart Town Gazette of 11 August 1827. The signature of Chief Boki and Thomas Blakesley on the contract to collect sandalwood.


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